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Ganga Mahotsav Varanasi

According to the Hindu calendar, Kartik (Oct-Nov) is the celestial month especially on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. Millions of Diyas (earthen Lamps) illuminate the ghats (banks) amidst chanting of Vedic mantras.

On Dev Deepavali (full moon day) it is said that God descends from heaven to bathe in the Ganga. On this occasion amidst chanting of Vedic hymns people light diyas (earthen lamps) and burst firecrackers in welcome Uttar Pradesh Tourism organizes a festival called Ganga Mahotsav so people can experience this celestial event and feet the ritualistic pulse of the ordinary people. Varanasi, the sacred corridor (tirtha) is the embodiment of living sacred heritage.

To witness the Ganga Mahotsav on ekadasi day (eleventh day from no moon day) we travelled to Varanasi from Delhi at 4 am and within half an hour of our arrival we went to the banks of the holy Ganga.

In the we hours the Ganga Ghat wears a mystical look as thousands of people walk up to the ghat to bathe on the sacred day at Brahmamuhurta. Shedding all inhibitions, men, women and children take the holy dip in the Ganga. Before long the golden streak of morning light besmears the devotees who are chanting mantras and bowing to the Sun God in Surya Namaskar.

The ghats are dotted with hundreds of umbrellas under which priests sit. Talking to one priest it is gathered that each umbrella is registered with the revenue department and each costs around Rs.30,000/- and the income per day is between Rs.100/- and Rs.500/-. Sitting under their umbrellas priests apply Urdhapundra and Tripundra tilaks (sacred marks on the foreheads of devotees amidst chanting of mantras. Devotees also worship Ganga here. These ceremonies are organized by local priests.

During the day I tried to explore the sacred city via its innumerable galis (lanes and bylaes) which, if combined, become a stretch of 480 km! Moving through the congested and narrow lanes two and a half feet wide proved to be a Himalayan task.

It was a treate to find hot, sumptuous breakfast being served by the roadside – piping hot puris and kachoris. There are scholars, pandits, flower sellers and vendors lining the lanes and bylanes of the city. If you walk up to the main road, however, you will see modern vehicles and there is an upmarket where coca cola, continental cuisine and modern electronics thrive.

After an afternoon siesta we went to Rajghat – the venue for the Ganga Mahotsav. The deep and wide Ganga was flowing by. With the chanting of Jai Gange a lamp was lit. This was followed by a song and Indian classical dance recitals originating from different regions of the country. For five consecutive evenings culture manifested itself as famous artistes performed. Vocal and instrumental classical performances took the Ganga Mahotsav to a new height.

Cultural phonetics and the sound of rhythm need no interpretation. Even those who knew nothing about the grammar of music tapped their feet and shook their heads in appreciation.

One evening, away from the Ganga Mahotsav, I went out to explore the city to find the echo of the celebration. In Ashi Ghat I found musicians from abroad had joined the local guru (teacher) to learn about Indian music. There are several hundred foreigners who have been residing in this sacred land for years. I discovered a person from Israel who lives a saintly life and calls himself ‘Music Baba’.

Away from the a Ganga Mahotsav the life of Varanasi goes on as usual with musical evenings organized by local people for their own private entertainment. The streets are studded with small temples. I discovered that various gods were offered different kinds of flowers. I wondered how all the flowers come to the city. With little effort I spotted Mali Gram (Gardener’s Village) lying along the Ganga on the other bank. Floriculture is an important occupation. Millions of tons of flowers are grown around the city. Fishermen and boatmen also draw attention. I discovered a sadhu (ascetic) who has been living in a boat for twenty years. There is also a saint who wears a seven ring cloth head gear and who claims to be Lord Vishnu himself.

Again peeping into the lifestyle and occupation of the traditional people I found that here are around 15 lakh skilled and semi-skilled workers who weave the world famous Varanasi sarees which is a heritage going on for at least 500 years. The aesthetic designs are mesmerizing.

Coming back to the Mahotsav and the ghats – every ghat along the Ganga is lighted up on Dev Deepavali in readiness for the Divine. Committees are formed and there is keen competition. Children decorate their respective ghats with motifs like the swastika, Om and Ganesha. The sheer beauty of light and shade cannot be captured by an electronic eye. Against the backdrop of the illuminated Ganga Ghat the rising full moon was an experience beyond narration. It was like drinking nectar. The full moon rose high above the sky casting its shadow down below on the twinkling Ganga. It was the grand finale to the Ganga Mahotsav.

Marriage of Saligram Shil and Tulsi Plant

She wears a salwar kameeze, speaks Hindi and Sanskrit fluently; she signs Bhojpuri folk songs as any other traditional village woman; and studies the culture and religious rituals of Varanasi during her frequent trips to India. She is Professor Tracy Pintchman, Associate Professor of Theology of Loyola University, Chicago USA.

During the full moon (Purnima) of Kartik (Oct-Not), 1998, Professor Tracy came to Varanasi with her husband, Professor William French, to create a unique videography on Kartik Puja, the lesser known folk religion in India. Professor Tracy said, “I studied Sanskrit in Varanasi 10 years ago and I have been coming to India to study folk religion, especially of women, during Kartik months and the folk celebration called Kartik Puja on the ghats (banks) of Varanasi.” She has studied the textual tradition. Her stress, however, is on the lok parampara (folk oral tradition) of the people.

Explaining the concept of Kartik month Professor Tracy said that mythologically in this month the samudra manthan (churning of the ocean) occurred when the 14 celestial gems came up. She narrated. “This is an auspicious month and on the ekadasi day (eleventh day from no-moon day) a unique festival called Kartik Puja is performed by women on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi. This also happens to be the day of celestial marriage of Tulsi with Saligram Shila. Tulsi is a plant (Ocimum basilicum or Ocimum sanctum). There are two types of Tulsi – one is Rama Tulsi with light green leaves and the other is Krishna Tulsi with dark green leaves. Its is a prerequisite for the worship of Vishnu and Narayan. A Saligram Shila is an ammonite fossil can generally be classified under Cephalopoda class which is roughly 425 million years old. This stone is one of the most sacred stones for Hindus.

The origin of the Saligram Shila goes back to the Puranic or mythological era. The Puranic encyclopaedia says Vishnu and Lakshmi once had a terrible quarrel and cursed one another. Sarawati’s curse transformed Lakshmi into a Tulsi plant destined to live on earth forever. Vishnu, however, intervened and said, “Lakshmi, you will live in the world as a holy Tulsi plant and when the curse has been completed you will come back to me. On that day a river named Gandaki will start from your body which will be in the shape of a Tulsi plant. On the bank of that river I will remain as a stone image (Saligram). There will be many worms with strong tusks and teeth which will pierce the stone into the shape of the sudarshan chakra (quoit) and it will create numberless Saligram.” Puranic sources further state that Tulsi and Saligarm Shila are married on earth on Kartik Purnima day.

Prof. Tracy explained that the oral tradition is different from the textual tradition. Womenfolk celebrate the celestial marriage. One group adopts Saligram as Krishna and the other Tulsi. The celestial marriage is a unique phenomenon during which women forget their human existence and merge with the celestial figures. The women behave as if they have found oneness with God. During the marriage ceremony they sing marriage songs numbering around 50. They verbally fight amongst themselves – one group taking the side of Krishna and the other that of Tulsi. Both groups trade allegations against each other. For instance the group that adopts Tulsi says. “Your Krishna has no character as he roams around with many gopis (milkmaids)…” Even priests are not spared and they are termed as a “greedy lot”.

Professor Tracy and William French filmed the bathing of womenfolk on the Ganga Ghat in the early morning followed by the ritual of the barat (groom’s party), marriage and kanya daan (giving away of the bride). All these ceremonies are accompanied by lucid folk songs. Professor Tracy feels that this ‘marriage’ is unique as rituals and timings remain as close to the Panchang (Indian calendar) as in real marriages. “This is nothing exotic and there is no sensationalism but is a pure and simple festival of innocent mind”.

Professor Tracy was helped by a Ph. D student of Benaras Hindu University, Ms. Sunita Singh, who not only unfolded the hidden nuances of the tradition but also interpreted the linguistic interplays as most women speak Bihari and Bhojpuri dialect which differs from district to district.

This film perhaps for the first time, records the ritual of ‘celestial marriage’ and Professor Tracy believes in recording what people actually say without any intervention of academic interpretation.

Professor Tracy says, “In Varanasi there is a tradition of Sakhi Bandh in which two women get formally befriended (as in sakhi of Krishna fame) and remain friends all their life.

Some prefer to be solemnized in sakhi bandhan during this auspicious month. Likewise human bonds are cemented under the shadow of celestial blessings which looms large over the belief system of the innocent but intelligent people”.

On the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi on ekadasi day (moonless night) one also finds Bhisma Pitamaha laying on a lead bed of arrows – his deathbed. His image is made of mud and topped with flowers and people worship him. This is another aspect of this film. Professor Tracy explained that Bhisma Pitamaha was the great grand uncle of the Kauravas and Pandavas of the epic, Mahabharata. He spoke the words of Vishnu before leaving his mortal body. People think it was actually Krishna who spoke about eternal truth through Bhisma Pitamaha’s voice while he lay awaiting death on his bed of arrows on the battlefield. All these events give the film on the ghats (banks) of the Ganga a different spiritual perspective. And these are no formal sacred nuances but the essence of life of the ordinary people of Varanasi.

While shooting this unique film Professor Tracy actually ‘experienced’ the micro world. Come, witness the ‘celestial marriage’ which takes place every year on Kartik Purnima on the banks of the holy Ganga in Varanasi.

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